Spring has finally sprung! Now is the time when garden beds and pots are being filled with fresh soil, compost, plant starts, and seeds. If you’re like me, maybe you’re growing more things from seeds this year than you have before. The process of growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers from seed can seem daunting, but it’s also an incredible experience. You get to watch something so small grow into food that you can put on your dinner table. I got all of my seeds for this year from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We carry a large variety of their seeds at the Co-Op. Last year I had the privilege of visiting their headquarters in Mineral, Virginia. I learned about where their seeds come from and about their operation as a whole.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, as we know it today, was established in 1982. Their first catalogue only had 65seed varieties, but included some heirloom varieties that were interesting and uncommon. The term “heirloom” is tossed around a lot in the produce world, but it isn’t strictly defined like the way the term “organic” is. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange defines heirloom as “an open pollinated variety developed before 1940.” After 1940, most new plant varieties were bred for large-scale chemical agriculture and not small-scale farming. As a result, some varieties of seeds were lost. Growing, saving, selling, and trading heirloom seeds helps to preserve old-school varieties and diversifies the produce gene pool. From the conception of SESE, most of their seeds were grown by the founder and by members of a local seed saving group. This tradition continues today, with most of their seeds coming from a collection of 60 small farms in various parts of the USA. Many of their growers are located in Virginia or other states in southeast region of the country. Some varieties of seeds they grow are, cleaned, dried and packaged on their farm in Mineral, Virginia.
In addition to growing and acquiring seeds for their catalogue, they also partner with other local organizations, like Commonwealth Seed Growers, to do seed trials. They also conduct breed trials to test out varieties of crops in certain conditions and to develop new varieties with different qualities. When I visited their farm, I got to see two different breeding trials. One trial was with the South Anna Butternut and another was with pickling cucumbers. For both trials, they were trying to breed crops that were good quality and resistant to downy mildew. In breeding trials, the goal is to crossbreed the best plants and save the seeds. To learn more about different seed and breed trials, you can visit commonwealthseeds.com.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is not open to the public and they do not have a storefront, but they occasionally hold farm tours in the summer. Every year, they also help host the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. This festival is a grassroots, volunteer-oriented event where local farmers, vendors, chefs, and educators come together to educate the public. They raise awareness about organic gardening, seed-saving, culinary techniques, history and more! Southern Exposure Seed Exchange helped to found this event. Each year, they grow and harvest many heirloom varieties of produce for the festival and offer tastings at the tasting tent. The late summer heirloom tomatoes are always a big hit! This year the festival is scheduled for October 3, 2020. For more information, visit https://www.heritageharvestfestival.com/.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange offers over 700 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain, and cover crop seeds. Sixty percent of the seeds they carry are certified organic and many of their seeds are heirloom varieties. If you’re interested in learning more about the seed varieties they carry, you can visit their website at https://www.southernexposure.com/ or pick up a seed catalogue from our racks next time you’re in the Co-Op. Starting your garden from seed is such a rewarding experience, even if it’s just a few pots on your windowsill. Knowing where your seeds come from helps to bring things full circle and raises awareness around proper farming and gardening practices. Happy Spring and Happy Planting!
Guest Blogger: Friendly City Food Co-op Assistant Team Leader, Produce